All cleared up

REPOST: This was first posted on Endless Possibilities v2.0 back in May 2009*. As we were recently discussing chemophobia and different definitions of ‘chemical’, it seems relevant. *I’m trying to work out how old Endless Possibilities is, I think it started in 2008…


There are several cultural confusions that cause problems in the chemical laboratory. Well, any chemistry class really. Words that mean one thing in a chemical context and another thing in an everyday context.
Take glass for example. We regularly use the word ‘clear’ to describe glass that is completely transparent and lacking in colour. Your windows for example. We use ‘stained’ to describe coloured glass that may or may not be transparent. Church windows for example. If we describe liquids we must ensure that we distinguish between clear and colourless. In this context clear refers to an absence of particles that scatter light: it isn’t cloudy or milky. Colourless obviously refers to a lack of colour, which isn’t the same things as white! Water is a clear, colourless liquid. A red liquid may either be clear or cloudy, but it isn’t colourless.
Strong and concentrated are also often confused. A strong acid has a particular chemical property (that of complete dissociation into ions in water), but a concentrated acid may be strong or weak because concentration refers not to the acid burny power of the acid but rather to the number of molecules (or ions or atoms) in solution. Weak and dilute are often interchanged when referring to, say, a cup of tea but cannot be interchanged when talking about acids or alkali.
Of course, not all of these misconceptions are knowledge based. Often it is autocorrect or spell check that is to blame, particularly in word processed documents. Most chemical words aren’t recognised by run of the mill spellcheckers, and this can lead to some surprising substitutions or errors. For example zeolite is commonly altered to zealots, or cuvette altered to curette.
It does make marking quite interesting reading sometimes!

One Reply to “All cleared up”

  1. _Strong_ and _concentrated_ is a nice one. They do seem like synonyms in common usage. I remember the first time I encountered glacial acetic acid it was quite a surprise to find that what was just vinegar could be dangerous stuff.

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